Avella hosted a press rally at noon on Saturday outside of Citi Field at the location where Queens Development Group (QDG) – a joint venture of Related Companies and Sterling Equities – plans to build Willets West.
At the rally, Avella denounced the project, calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to set things straight and force QDG to go through the full approval process for permission to build.
“This was a project that was initiated by former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who seemed to think that parkland was for sale in this city,” Avella said. “But now, Mayor de Blasio has to defend this project in the lawsuit. And that’s part of why we’re here today; to ask our new mayor, Mayor de Blasio, to intercede. He campaigned on these issues.”
Avella is one of 16 petitioners in the Supreme Court case filed on Feb. 10 against the city, the mayor, several city agencies and the project developers.
They argue that public approval processes were illegally ignored when Willets West was approved by City Council last October.
“Whenever the City of New York does something like this, you need to seek park alienation approval from the state legislature,” Avella said. “The city, under Mike Bloomberg, did not do that. You also have to go through ULURP to change the zoning and have such a major project on this site; the city did not do that.
“So the city has violated city and state law to give the owners of this mall a $100 million gift at the expense of every person who uses parkland in the City of New York,” said Avella.
Willets West would be located in space currently designated as parkland, which is in use as the Citi Field parking lot. On Saturday, behind the press rally stood the three-ring circus tents of Cirque du Soleil, one of the many events that also utilizes the space each year..
The mall project would involve building an even bigger parking lot in Willets Point proper while the mall project is completed. The lawsuit also says development on housing and other community improvement features in the original redevelopment proposal for Willets Point and promised to the community will be pushed back to 2026.
John Lew-Beer, one of three lawyers representing Avella and company, feels his team has “a very strong lawsuit.”
“If the courts rule in our favor, then the process needs to start over with community input,” Lew-Beer said. “We have a new administration in the city, so hopefully they’ll rethink it and decide not to go forward with this particular plan.”
One of many local business owners present at the rally, Irene Prestigiacomo, saw Avella’s participation in the lawsuit as a positive sign, but she was critical of other elected officials, who she said were neglecting the interests of existing residents and businesses.
As a “case in point,” Prestigiacomo called out Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, who dodged a question about the development at a March 18th Queensboro Hill Flushing Civic Association meeting by saying, “I wasn’t in office when it passed, so I’m sort of trying to figure out how to move forward on that now.”
“What’s incredible is that Melinda Katz was the chair of the council’s Land Use Committee in 2008,” Prestigiacomo said. “It’s inconceivable that she would not be aware of the drastic changes to the project. Moreover, Ms. Katz’s deputy borough president is Leroy Comrie, who was chair of the Land Use Committee just last year, when the special permit to convert Willets Point into a parking lot was approved.”
Prestigiacomo, who took control of her husband’s Willets Point business in 1989 when he passed away, is a petitioner in the lawsuit and has been involved with fighting displacement and eminent domain threats since 2010.
Residents from all over Queens are beginning to join the fray of those opposed to private development on public parkland. Maspeth resident Richie Polgar, who attended the Saturday rally, said he is against the project because he believes New York City needs more parkland, not less.
“I’m 65 years old and I’ve been coming here since I was a little kid,” Polgar said. “This shopping center is bad for the park, for the people that use it, and bad for [small] business.”